An Arctic pact shows what’s possible

Dozens of countries eager to fish in the warming Arctic have wisely decided to hold off for 16 years. This caution – and cooperation – provide a precedent for further agreements on the far north.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy retrieves supplies in the Arctic Ocean.

For decades, the Arctic has been viewed as a problem, a place of tension between nations with competing claims to its potential wealth, especially as the ice cap recedes. The top of the world might become a new Wild West.

That view has now shifted after a new international pact was signed last month in Washington. Dozens of nations agreed to hold off on commercial fishing in waters roughly the size of the Mediterranean for 16 years while the Arctic habitat is studied under a joint research program. Arctic fish are critical for other creatures such as polar bears and help sustain coastal native communities. If the ocean’s ecology proves too delicate, another five years could be added to the moratorium.

More than a problem, the Arctic is now an opportunity to show how differences between nations can be resolved and an untouched environment preserved before it is exploited. An important principle has been applied: Better to act with caution and understand a natural environment before meddling with it.

The pact now opens the possibility for even more cooperation on other issues in the Arctic, such as territorial claims and oil exploration. A model of statesmanship has been established despite moves by some nations to define their underwater territory and tap the Arctic’s riches. Unilateral acts are now less likely.

Countries with large oceangoing fishing fleets have learned the hard way that fish stocks can easily collapse without international agreements that strictly regulate the size of catches. Environmental governance takes cooperation. And as the Arctic warms, the nonfishing pact shows how a consensus about preservation can flip a problem into an opportunity.

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